The serious business of clowning

Dr. Klutz brings his one-man English theater show to schools

Dr. Klutz is the first to tell you, “Clowning is a serious business.” But take one look at Dr. Klutz, and you’ll know he’s got a few tricks under his trademark brown hat or in one of the magic suitcases he carries on stage. Whether he’s dressed as a clown with a red nose, black glasses and a striped shirt, decked out in a chef’s white apron, or playing the role of the mad professor, Dr. Klutz knows what it takes to make kids laugh. He also knows how to get them speaking English – in sentences, not just words – even kids who say they can’t speak English.

Once a scientist, later a priest, an honorary park ranger and a mime street performer, Schelie Nielsen, a native of Australia, has always liked to dive headfirst into life. For the past 15 years, Schelie has made his living performing as Dr. Klutz for primary and secondary schools in the Czech Republic and across Europe. What started as a way to express his creativity back in 2001, Dr. Klutz has now become a fine-tuned stage presence with eight different shows for three different age groups. Schelie describes Dr. Klutz as a “cheeky” character whose favorite word is “Sorry!” said in a smirk. Dr. Klutz is a flop without help from his audience – his tricks don’t work and his stories don’t progress, until the children who are watching help him out. This is the key to his success.

Schelie believes his theater works because Dr. Klutz gives his audience of school children the power to shape the show by using their English. None of Dr. Klutz’s magic tricks, spells or demonstrations works without the children’s active verbal participation. By encouraging children to get over their fears of learning a new language and by helping them realize that speaking English can be fun, Schelie is able to teach as well as entertain. His shows have a 99.9% success rate, which Schelie credits to the children themselves, who are so vital to the performance.

Dr. Klutz’s repertoire includes “The Magical English Show” (his first and longest running show), which is geared to children ages 5 – 8 who may have never heard English before. In another show for younger audiences, “The Cooking Show,” Dr. Klutz teaches children to make spaghetti and meatballs and to sing “On Top of Spaghetti.” In “Lenka and the Tea Witch,” the children help a wizard save fair Lenka from the mean tea witch. In his newest show, “The Mad Professor,” which Schelie created just this summer and will take on stage for the first time in September, Dr. Klutz uses home products to perform magic. Each of the various shows has one essential element in common – audience participation!

A passionate environmentalist, Schelie has also created several shows that teach children more about the nature and wildlife native to his homeland in the Blue Mountains of Katoomba, Australia. He performs “The Little Australian Show,” Bilby’s Bush Adventures,” and his personal favorites, The Australian shows I & II, which use more advanced English and are geared toward teenagers. In his Australian shows, students learn to play the didgeridoo, taste Vegemite and get an earful of Aussie slang. For Schelie, it’s a bit reminiscent of his very first public shows, which were environmental educational shows that taught children about biodiversity in the Australian parks system. And, Schelie gets to speak like an Aussie for a change.

As Dr. Klutz, Schelie travels about 50, 000 km each year to bring his interactive English performances to Czech and international schools. He’s performed in over 300 schools and reached 350,000 children in seven different countries (and counting). When he’s performing, he averages two performances a day. Although Schelie is a seasoned performer, he confesses that even he gets nervous, especially when performing a new show.

One way of overcoming stage fright, Schelie says, is to understand that we all have “butterflies” in our stomachs. The trick is “getting your butterflies to fly in formation.” Like his creator, Dr. Klutz’s humorous antics encourage children to get over their own fears regarding learning English.

Since arriving in Prague in 2001, Schelie met and married his soulmate, Zita, a graphic artist-turned-teacher, who also plays a vital role in the backstage creation of Dr. Klutz’s character. Zita sews Dr. Klutz’s costumes, prepares his website, handles his travel schedule and helps organize the 5-10 suitcases that hold the props for each different show. Schelie’s daughter Matilda gives Dr. Klutz insight on what kinds of humor children best understand. In addition to school performances, Dr. Klutz is also available for corporate parties, workshops and seminars.

Although being a clown may seem like a lifetime of non-stop jokes, Schelie believes that some of his best training in clowning came from days of speaking in the pulpit. While most people think of clowns as playing a humorous role, clowns actually have the potential to notice things that other people may miss.

In a short piece he wrote this summer called “Through the eyes of a clown,” Schelie says, “To clown is to give back to the people a positive and creative outlook that defines and possibly redefines who and what we are, which in turn could change our perceptions in the way we see ourselves in a world that is changing.”

For English language theater that promises to be as entertaining as it is educational, let Dr. Klutz convince you that clowning is serious business indeed.


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